ED GORDON, host:
From NPR News, this is NEWS AND NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.
On July 1st, Cory Booker takes on the job he tried to win four years ago. He'll officially become mayor of New Jersey's largest city, Newark.
The 37-year-old Rhodes Scholar will have some monumental challenges to tackle. Newark has been called one of the poorest cities of its size. Schools in Newark, which are run by the state, are said to be barely functional, and crime is rampant. But the former city councilman says he's ready to turn things around.
Newark's current mayor, Sharpe James, who is also African-American, is the longest serving mayor in the city's history. James had been elected to an unprecedented five terms.
During the 2002 race for mayor, the clash of old guard versus new entangled the two African American candidates in what has been called one of the nastiest political fights in recent history. The election was captured in an Oscar nominated documentary called Street Fight.
(Soundbite of movie “Street Fight”)
Unidentified Man: Sharpe is quoted calling Cory a fucking white boy, and telling audiences that he takes money from the Ku Klux Klan. On The Today Show, he says that Cory, a Baptist, is actually Jewish.
Mayor SHARPE JAMES (Former Mayor of Newark, New Jersey): He went to Stanford, and he's Jewish. He tells the story about his graduation where he couldn't date a white girl.
Unidentified Man: He also says of Cory, You have to learn to be African-American, and we don't have time to train you.
Mayor CORY BOOKER (Mayor, Newark, New Jersey): This is an attempt, a really sad attempt, by Sharpe James to racialize his campaign and ignore - distract people from what the real issues are. The truth of the matter is, is I'm an African-American who's benefited from a legacy of struggle in our country.
GORDON: James pulled out of the race this year, saying he wanted to focus on his other elected position, as a New Jersey State Senator. That paved the way for Booker's landslide victory over state Senator Ronald Rice.
Earlier, I spoke with Mayor-elect Booker about his ambitions, his accomplishments, and the generational shift in black leadership he represents.
Mayor BOOKER: This is a job I've dreamed about all my life. When I have parents who are very active in the civil rights movement, who taught my brother and I that we were the beneficiaries of incredible sacrifice and struggle. And the way we stay true to that and really fulfill the legacy we've inherited is to continue that struggle and that fight.
So, to me, I'm happy to be here. This is my city. This is where I'm going to be for a long time. And the mayor's seat now will just help me have more leverage to create the kind of transformative change people in the City of Newark really want.
GORDON: There are those, even though you haven't officially taken the seat, who are looking past this position, looking to you as a possible run for statewide office in New Jersey and possibly even bigger aspirations down the line politically. How much have you allowed Cory Booker to look down that road?
Mayor BOOKER: You know, I have a very good friend of mine who gave me a digital song the other day, Don't Believe the Hype by Public Enemy. And you know, look, we've got to stay focused, and I think that's one of the most powerful tools anybody can have is when they concentrate on the task at hand. The future will take care of itself. I've got about a decade of work here in the City of Newark before I can even start thinking about what's next.
GORDON: This was not a pretty election for you this go round and, in particular, the election that you lost up front, a term ago, to Mayor Sharpe James who had been, many said, elected mayor for life. You were called an Uncle Tom by some in his camp. The race card had been played - black to black. How much did you find that distasteful in the sense of unexpected?
Mayor BOOKER: I was called many things, many of them probably you can't say on the radio. It was a very - It was a baptism by fire. And a lot of the attacks were more ugly than you even repeated and a lot of them had to do with race. Everything from race, sexual orientation to even more sort of critical things that they had on that side.
But you've got to work through that, and you've got to expect it. You know, power concedes nothing without force. This is one of the most entrenched political machines in the entire State of New Jersey. It's formidable. We weren't just going up against a mayor and his mayoral machine, but Sharpe James had two political offices, the mayor and the Senate seat, so he was pulling in chips from all around the State of New Jersey.
The first election we fought against the entire machine. The governor himself was coming in regularly stumping for the mayor, doing sort of publicity stunts around him. Every union in the state was against us in the first election. But we were able to punch through that.
Number one, we did it by doing so well last time against all that. We did lose, but we only lost by about 3500 votes, and we just kept at it. We did not give up. We were not deterred. We didn't hesitate or retreat from the challenges.
And we just got back on the streets and for four years, I was out there working through a non profit in neighborhoods, letting people know the possibilities, that if we had a new vision. And it resulted well. By the time Sharpe pulled out, we were ahead of him in the polls by about 25 percent - 25 percentage points - and the unions in the state had all switched to my side. The black clergy were coming over to my side. It was just a tremendous sea change by the time we got, really, our stride in the campaign.
GORDON: There is a generational change going on in America today where many of the older leaders, the tried and true leaders, are now having to give way to a younger generation of leadership and, as we know historically, that hasn't always been an easy thing.
How much do you believe this was reflective of what we're starting to see?
Mayor BOOKER: I'm encouraged when I look around the country and I see in Alabama, Artur Davis or Harold Ford or Barack Obama and this next generation of black leadership that's coming about. And I think it does nothing but to celebrate the black community's achievements in America. These are folks that have opportunities that were fought for and, in many ways, died for by the generation that came before us.
So Sharpe James and me running against each other, we were from different eras. And he's even said that to me in conversation since the election. He was the civil rights generation and they had tremendous challenges; and because of their successes, they open up doors for, you know, Artur Davis to go to Harvard, for me to go to Stanford and to Oxford.
So we're now coming back into our communities with opportunities and skills and training that we are rightfully using to make a difference in our neighborhoods. So you're right; it's a rocky transition in some points, but it's a glorious one overall when you look at it from the larger perspective.
GORDON: I've also heard, and I'm sure you've heard this, Cory Booker, behind closed doors, the idea that there are many of those of the older generation that don't believe that the younger generation gets the lesson yet. That they don't understand the full sacrifice, and that they are giving way to the idea of homogenizing themselves a bit more than the civil rights community would like to see, being more politically conciliatory, if you will.
Mayor BOOKER: A couple things. Back to the theme about the way Sharpe James campaigned. I mean, we cannot allow sort of petty, narrow, racial reasoning to undermine the larger universal and racial goals that we have as a community. And that's something I fight and react against. I've seen it in the most ugly forms where people use race opportunistically, or use it in a demagogic way; so that I react against still.
But, you know, look, I see a sense of urgency in my generation. We come - or we're sort of the hip-hop generation, we are innovators. We're people that have, are impatient. But that sense of sacrifice is still alive and well, and I see it in my neighborhoods, and I see it in the young activists I'm working with.
Look, we will never be called in the way my father's generation was, to get on buses going down south, knowing we were going to be chain whipped, knowing we were going to face unconscionable aggression and activism. Sitting on lunch counters is nothing we're going to be called to do where we're pulled off and kicked and spit at. It's just a different set of challenges.
But I'm living in a city right now where we've had 19 murders in 18 months of young people, of teenagers. I live right now in public housing projects, on the 16th floor. My building hasn't had heat and hot water since January. I see struggles within my community that are the same in many ways. Here we are, 50-something years since Brown versus Board of Education, and an average black high school student in America is reading at the same level as the average white eighth grader. We have serious urgencies in our city, and they demand -in my city and cities all around American - and they demand the same kind of sacrifice, the same kind of dedication.
GORDON: You've been favorably compared to the junior senator from Illinois, Barack Obama. There are others, as you mentioned, who are cut of the same cloth. You talked about Harold Ford in Tennessee. And while there is a great admiration for you all and others from the African-American community, there is a sense from some in the African-American community that there is a certain disconnect based on the background that you all have had, from a somewhat privileged family, going to Ivy League schools, grand schools of higher education. How do you convince them that there is a genuine connect with this group of people and the ills that are suffered by many in the community?
Mr. BOOKER: Ed, we've got to have a deeper love for ourselves than that, and understand that we as a people are diverse and wonderful, coming in all different shapes and sizes, shades and backgrounds and that we need those people, like a Frederick Douglas, who is incredibly learned and incredibly accomplished in an academic sense.
And we need the activists, the Harriet Tubmans. Our community needs everyone. We need not start separating a people and talking about disconnects. We need a full team on the field. We need a wide receiver and a quarterback. And so I'm pleased that we have such diversity within our community. I'm not Harold Ford. I'm not Barack Obama. We're different; we have different skills, but we all have a role to play. So we are all connected.
Until we realize that, as King said, that we are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a common garment of destiny. Until we realize that, as a people, that there is a just really a - one force that's moving through - a (unintelligible), so to speak, moving through America right now and the black community in particular; we're going to continue to divide ourselves and be like Booker T. Washington's barrel of crabs, each pulling each other done.
GORDON: Let me ask you about the documentary Street Fight, which chronicled the race between you and Mayor Sharpe James. It really does give an up-close and personal look at politics today and how venomous it can be. How much did you learn in a contentious race like this? And did you like what you learned? Many people say they don't involve themselves in politics of - the best and the brightest, if you will - because they don't like the world that politics is today.
Mr. BOOKER: Well, that attitude really frustrates me, and I hear that all the time; people saying, oh, I don't want to get political. You're here because people got political. You're here because people brought it to that level. And you're here because people faced the ugliest parts of America for us through struggles that they can't even imagine.
So I went through a real tough fight. Anybody who sees that movie can see that they threw things at us that I never imagined could happen in the United States of America. They literally had to call in federal election observers to try to quell anticipated violence at the polls. But the theme or the lesson from it is not one to be discouraged; it's a lesson of hope, that if you stay persistent, if you don't give up, if you're unyielding and unhesitating in your values and your principles, you can win. We stuck at it, and four years later, after losing a narrow election, we were able to win by a landslide.
So the lesson I took from all that is, you can face the darkest of forces or face the most vicious opposition; but if your cause is righteous, and if you try to stay worthy of that cause - which is a daily struggle - that you can be victorious, that you can accomplish your hopes and dreams.
GORDON: Mayor-elect Cory Booker, we wish you a lot of luck and look forward to having you on the program again.
Mr. BOOKER: Ed, I'm so grateful. And I'm hoping I can come back and talk about some of these issues, especially in relation to the progress we're going to make.
GORDON: Thanks very much.
Mr. BOOKER: Thank you, sir.
GORDON: For an extended version of my conversation with New York Mayor-elect Cory Booker and for more on the documentary Street Fight, log onto npr.org
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